When most people think of Creole culture, they think only of people of African descent with darker skin complexions and view them as residents of warmer climates. What if someone told you about the Creole culture in Alaska? Yes, the northern-most outpost in the United States is home to a small, but vibrant Creole culture that illuminates the cold and dreary winters of the Arctic Circle.

USSR - CIRCA 1992: stamp printed in USSR shows portrait of Zagoskin and Yukon River with the inscription “Zagoskin, Investigation of Alaska 1842 - 44”, from series “Expeditions”, circa 1992. Photo: Galyamin Sergej

USSR – CIRCA 1992: stamp printed in USSR shows portrait of Zagoskin and Yukon River with the inscription “Zagoskin, Investigation of Alaska 1842 – 44”, from series “Expeditions”, circa 1992.
Photo: Galyamin Sergej

Origins of Alaska’s Creole People

The origins of Creole people in Alaska dates back to the early 1700s when Russian fur traders began exploring Alaska and setting up trading outposts. The Russians did not arrive in Alaska with intentions similar to those of Europeans landing along the East Coast of North America. While those Europeans were settling in villages and towns, clearing land for crop use, and clearing forests, Russians arrived in Alaska purely for the economic advantages of fur.

Fast forward to 1799, and the Russian America Company (RAC) was formed by combining the assets of a previous Shelikhov-Golikov Company that had been conducting fur trading in Alaska dating back to 1700. The Creole culture that was cultivated over the next 300 years was the result of Russian men intermingling with, marrying, and bearing children with women from the native Aleut and Alutiiq tribes.

Position of Prominence

Throughout the 1800s, these Alaskan Creoles enjoyed a high position in the society of the colony. Alaska was, at this time, uninhabited and lacking government, with the exception of the existing native tribes and their villages. The Russian America Company was allowed to govern much of its space in Alaska as a de-facto government. In 1800, the Russian Orthodox Church established itself in Alaska.

Priests and bishops from the church were tireless advocates for the rights of native peoples in Alaska. As a Russian colony, the RAC observed Russian laws for the individuals and families living within its boundaries in Alaska. Under Russian law, the offspring of Russian men and native women were referred to as kreoli, or Creoles in American English, and viewed as a higher class of citizenry within the colony.

While the Metis in Canada, or half-breeds as they were referred to in British colonies in America, were viewed as less-than-valuable members of society, the Alaskan Creoles were considered vital members of society. They enjoyed high status in communities, and generations of men served as members of the RAC’s economic machine. In fact, Alaskan Creoles were considered full citizens of Russia, enjoying protection and equal status under Russian laws.

Creoles of Alaska

Skins of animals killed on Show River.
Photo: Emswyler and Dupont Bill, Alaska, 1906.

Loss of Identity During American Rule

In 1867, Russia and the United States signed the Treaty of Cession. The terms of the treaty saw the colony of Alaska turned over to American control and Russian interests in the region ceded. This left the Alaskan Creoles in a state of transition. When the United States Army, under the control of Jefferson Davis (not the former President of the Confederate States of America) arrived with his unit to sign the treaty, the mistreatment of Creoles began almost immediately.

Even though the Russian governor of the region opened his home to the Americans, he was quickly hustled out of his home and asked to leave the province. Creole families too were forced out of their homes, in many cases literally thrown out on the streets. At this point in American history, those of mixed blood were considered half-persons. They were deemed not as physically or mentally adept as purely white or purely native individuals.

In the first decades of American rule, most Russians living in Alaska exercised the option to move to their ancestral home (though many had never set foot there at this point) of Russia and enjoy full citizenship, and respect, there. The vast majority of Alaskan Creoles remained because Alaska was their home. It was the only place they’d known, and most had deep roots with the native Unangan, Alutiiq, Tlingit, Athabascan, and Aleut communities. Despite being born and raised in Alaska, Creoles were not offered American citizenship upon the transfer of power.

Why Alaskan Creoles Succeeded

As alluded to earlier, Russians settled Alaska in a much different way than other European powers handled other parts of North and South America. The Russians who moved to Alaska were interested in economic wealth and collecting furs to provide for families. There was less interest in generating limitless income for a crown located thousands of miles away.

Likewise, the native tribes had the skills and know how to survive in the harsh conditions of Alaska. Natives knew how to hunt, fish, navigate the land and waterways of Alaska, and could run dogsled teams across the frozen landscape. The new class of Creoles that rose from 1700 to the early 20th century had a respect for the land and the skills to capitalise economically without downgrading other members of society.

Creoles of Alaska

Hunting and fisheries in the North America and the Alaska territory, vintage engraved illustration. Journal des Voyage, Travel Journal, (1880-81).

Difficult Existence Today

Alaska’s Creole people suffered many hardships under American rule early on, but none was worse than the identity crisis that was created by American governance and the severance of their of heritage. After the loss of their privileged status in Alaska, many Creoles began to identify as Russian to avoid landing at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In denying their native heritage, the Creoles lost touch with their ancestral roots. However, with passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, anyone with one-quarter Native blood could participate. This led to many descendants of Creoles enrolling, a move which angered Natives who had not abandoned their Creole ancestry in favor of Russian identity. Today, the Creoles of Alaska are beginning to rediscover and redefine their identity, garnering attention for a community that is largely lost to history.